When gun laws were big news

Shepparton News - Country News - - THE WEATHER YEAR THAT WAS -

As the enor­mity of the Port Arthur mas­sacre un­folded, then Prime Min­is­ter John Howard thought to him­self: ‘‘Heav­ens above, what’s the point of hav­ing a huge ma­jor­ity if you can’t do some­thing with it?’’

The re­sult was the Na­tional Firearms Agree­ment, ham­mered out over the strong op­po­si­tion of some states and gun own­ers, ban­ning semi-au­to­matic ri­fles and shot­guns and im­pos­ing strict na­tional li­cens­ing re­quire­ments.

Thirty-five peo­ple died and 23 were wounded when lone gun­man Martin Bryant opened fire on vis­i­tors at Port Arthur, Tas­ma­nia on the af­ter­noon of April 28, 1996.

At that time the Fed­eral Coali­tion had been in power for just un­der two months.

Cabi­net doc­u­ments for 1996 and 1997, re­leased last week by the Na­tional Archives of Aus­tralia, re­veal some of the me­chan­ics of im­ple­ment­ing the Na­tional Firearms Agree­ment and buy­ing back more than half a mil­lion banned guns from their own­ers.

Cabi­net his­to­rian Paul Stran­gio said the ac­tual cabi­net doc­u­ments were not as il­lu­mi­nat­ing on the gun law changes as he had hoped.

‘‘A lot of it was done out of Mr Howard’s pri­vate of­fice and the big ar­gu­ments were in the party room rather than the cabi­net,’’ Mr Stran­gio said.

‘‘The ten­sions were par­tic­u­larly around the Na­tional Party.’’

Guns laws then and now re­main the re­spon­si­bil­ity of states and ter­ri­to­ries.

Pre-1996, firearms laws var­ied widely, though fol­low­ing a se­ries of gun at­tacks, Vic­to­ria and NSW had tight­ened up their laws and there was a grow­ing move­ment for stan­dard­ised na­tional laws.

Among the hold­outs was Tas­ma­nia, whose lax laws al­lowed Bryant to ac­quire the two mil­i­tary ri­fles he used at Port Arthur.

The cabi­net doc­u­ments show Tas­ma­nia was quick to agree to tighten its laws.

A cabi­net minute of April 29 — the day af­ter the mas­sacre — cites an oral re­port from Tas­ma­nian sen­a­tor and So­cial Se­cu­rity Min­is­ter Jo­ce­lyn New­man who said the Tas­ma­nian state gov­ern­ment, op­po­si­tion and Greens had agreed to ban all mil­i­tary style semi­au­to­matic ri­fles and to in­tro­duce reg­is­tra­tion of all guns.

Mr Howard was at Kir­ri­billi House in Syd­ney when he was in­formed of the tragedy.

‘‘Tony Run­dle, the then premier of Tas­ma­nia, rang me,’’ Mr Howard said.

‘‘I went down to Can­berra that night and we had a meet­ing at The Lodge. It was then I started about the idea of na­tional gun laws,.

‘‘It was one of these things where there was over­whelm­ing sup­port for what we did in the cities and in most of re­gional Aus­tralia.

‘‘But in cer­tain ar­eas of the bush, peo­ple felt ag­grieved. They felt they had been de­prived and hand­i­capped through the be­hav­iour of a mad­man.’’

Mr Howard said he could un­der­stand how some of them felt.

‘‘But I just be­lieved over­whelm­ingly that if you couldn’t do this and you weren’t pre­pared to chance your arm on some­thing like this, well what’s the point of be­ing in gov­ern­ment.’’

Mr Howard said this was a very dif­fi­cult time for his col­leagues, deputy prime min­is­ter and Na­tion­als leader Tim Fis­cher and his deputy John Anderson.

He be­lieved a ref­er­en­dum to trans­fer gun law pow­ers to the Com­mon­wealth would have been car­ried but it be­came an un­nec­es­sary op­tion.

Mr Howard met some of those im­pacted by the shoot­ing, such as Wal­ter Mikac who lost his wife and two young daugh­ters.

‘‘It was a very early re­minder to me that one of the jobs of the prime min­is­ter is to com­fort and con­sole and em­brace and hug peo­ple who have had im­mense tragedy,’’ he said.

Mr Howard’s for­mer deputy prime min­is­ter Tim Fis­cher said Aus­tralia was a safe place be­cause of those laws, but it wasn’t easy.

He re­calls an ef­figy of him­self be­ing set alight out­side a pub­lic hall in Queens­land as he and the cabi­net took their pol­icy around the coun­try.

‘‘If you count 10 or more vic­tims as a gun mas­sacre, we had sev­eral be­fore 1996, we’ve had zero since,’’ Mr Fis­cher said last week.

‘‘The US has sev­eral ev­ery month of ev­ery year of the 21st cen­tury.’’

He warned that Aus­tralians shouldn’t be­come com­pla­cent, and must guard against any at­tempts to wind back the gun laws.

Not for­got­ten . . . An April 28, 2006 file photo of for­mer Prime Min­is­ter John Howard lay­ing a wreath at the memo­rial site of the Port Arthur mas­sacre dur­ing a ser­vice to mark the 10th an­niver­sary of the mas­sacre in Port Arthur, Tas­ma­nia. Pic­ture: AAP Im­age/Ian Waldie

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